On the 15th of April, the first of the two SIB Masterclasses of this month took place. It focused on a small, but still internationally observed country: Austria. Ever since 2017, when Sebastian Kurz became one of the youngest chancellors on the international stage, Austria received considerable attention. With Kurz’s tough stances on immigration policy, the country gathered both support and criticism in the European Union. What is the Austrian political position within the wider European context? And how is the current political situation embedded in the longer history of Austria?
These and more questions were the topic of the Masterclass. The speaker of the evening was Dr. Monika Baar, professor and historian for Central European studies at Leiden University, with a special focus on Austrian studies. Baar herself completed part of her studies in Austria’s capital Vienna, therefore bringing not only theoretical but also personal knowledge to the lecture.
Professor Baar started by providing the historical context of the current political situation in Austria. The Habsburg monarchy, that lasted for over 600 years, strategically managed to increase its hold of power in Europe from the 13th century onwards. However, it ultimately crumbled due to difficulties with its many nationalities. The defeat during the first World War resulted in an identity crisis, leading to the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi-Germany in 1938. This event was collectively remembered in Austrian history as Austria becoming the first victim of Hitler-Germany. Only in the 1980s and 1990s was Austria’s open commitment and engagement in the Nazi cause openly acknowledged. Part of the circumstances that lead to this open discourse was the so-called “Waldheim-affair”: The then president of Austria, Kurt Waldheim, was diplomatically isolated, after his indirect involvement in Nazi-crimes became public.
The brief historical reflections laid the foundation for a discussion about contemporary Austrian politics. Sebastian Kurz became Austria’s chancellor in 2017 at the age of 31. In his campaign and later political policies, he build on an anxiety about unchecked migration, argues pro-EU, but nevertheless cuts into the integration budget. He frequently argues for “safe borders”, employs anti-Islam rhetoric and sees the welfare state being misused by international migration. Part of his coalition is the Austrian right-wing party “FPÖ”. Its party-leader Heinz-Christian Strache frequently has to deal with accusations about his involvement as a teenager in Neo-Nazi-leaning groups. Later in 2018, Austria decided to withdraw from the UN migration pact.
Baar ended her lecture by showing a speech by Austrian writer Michael Köhlmeier during Austria’s Holocaust Memorial Day in 2018. There, Köhlmeier warned that sometimes many small steps can lead to “big evil”, especially when anti-semitic or racist statements are trivialized. The ending of the presentation opened the way for an engaging discussion among also many Austrians in the audience. Their personal experiences with the Austrian political system provided for an all the more encompassing debate.
Jakob Pallinger, member of the Committee of Intellectual Activities